Things Biblical, things Technical

This coming weekend the Gospel is John 8:1-11; the passage traditionally called “The Women Caught in Adultery.” Perhaps you have noticed that in many bibles the entire passage appear in [brackets]. The use of brackets is way to say, “what is between the brackets does not appear in all the ancient manuscripts.”  The brackets are not used to say that the passage is not inspired by God.I mention this because sometimes parishioners approach me and tell of an encounter with another someone whose goal was to cast seeds of doubt regarding our Faith and the Bible. One such encounter essentially said that “people add their favorite stories to your Bible. The ‘women caught in adultery’ is one of those stories – just added in because someone liked it.'”  And then the question is handed on to me.

Any text without a context is just a pretext for what the person wanted to say in the first place. So, lets give this inquiry some context and start with a simple question: “was John 8:1-11 added to the Gospel of John at some time before (or after) the Gospel reached its final written form?” You might find that question odd, but then I would argue that Mark and Matthew’s gospel were not written in a setting but were collections of accounts that eventually reached a “final written form.” I think Luke’s Gospel is the same, but… one might make a good argument that Luke captured the accounts (some shared with Mark and Matthew, some shared only with Matthew, and some unique to Luke) in a given time period as he seemed to have a patron – Theopholis .  John’s Gospel, to me at least, seems more like Mark and Matthew – a collection of accounts, remembrances, parables, etc. that were part of the oral tradition of the community.  In other words, at some point, all reached their final written form. Some in a short period; some over time. And so, our question is: “was John 8:1-11 added to the Gospel of John at some time before (or after) the Gospel reached its final written form?”

Before attempting an answer, let’s look at what we know from textual criticism of Scripture:

  • The story is missing from all the Greek manuscripts of John before the fifth century – but as a story it is mentioned by Papias in the late first and early second century. Specifically, It is not in P66 (a near complete codex of John) or in P75  (seems to have 92% of Johannine content when compared to Vaticanus) both of which have been assigned to the late 100s or early 200s, nor in two important manuscripts produced in the early/mid 300s, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. And neither of these two are considered complete when compared to modern bibles.
  • All the earliest church fathers omit this passage in commenting on John and pass directly from John 7:52 to John 8:12. Yet, In the early 400s, Augustine of Hippo used the passage extensively. Leo the Great (Pope, from 440–61), cited the passage in his 62nd Sermon. But the earliest church father are aware of pericope adulterae and its references are from the earliest age of the church.
  • It can be said that the text flows very nicely from 7:52 to 8:12 if you leave out the story and just read the passage as though the story were not there. But that is hardly conclusive as there are many places one can do that.
  • No Eastern church father cites the passage before the tenth century when dealing with this Gospel. But During the 5th century, the church was sorting out what, exactly, should be in the canon of inspired Scripture. Pericope adulterae, as it is known, first appears in a Greek text during this period, although it is alluded to by Greek writers as early as the 2nd century.
  • When the story starts to appear in manuscript copies of the Gospel of John in the early 6th century, it shows up in three different places other than here (after John 7:36; 7:44; 21:25), and in one manuscript of Luke, it shows up after 21:38.  But in more than 900 early manuscripts (not the earliest, but early), it located right after John 7:52
  • Its style and vocabulary is more unlike the rest of John’s Gospel than any other paragraph in the Gospel. But then there are many scholars that hold it is completely consistent with Johannine style and vocabulary. There are also scholars that hold the Prologue of this gospel is so different in style that it was also a later addition – perhaps from a liturgical setting.
  • Even though I have no more than a “hand wave” at “final written form”, you can begin to sense why this is an important consideration.

First, without trying to minimize the evidence, we must at least admit that textual criticism is as much an art as it is a science, and the evaluation of the text’s validity is at best only a (very) educated guess. While this is one of the largest and most difficult text-critical issues in the NT, there are dozens of texts (e.g., verses, phrases, or even single words) that have a history that cannot be determined with specificity; texts that have an admittedly double-bracketed or italicized character. Even our earliest manuscripts of the NT are a few centuries removed from the original version of the Bible – and as mentioned above – they are not complete.. This is not to undermine the text-critical endeavor or its conclusions, but to place them in their context. Even the manuscripts we possess are not in perfect agreement, and so the open-ended question can be asked: do we have all the “chains of scribal copies” for the Gospel of John.  Might it be that there was a manuscript, now lost, that contained the story?

Second, since the texts (i.e., verses, etc.) that have a more certain dubious character are omitted from our contemporary Bibles, the presence of this text, even in double-bracketed or italicized form, is itself an argument confirming its inclusion and use. The more than 1,900-year use and application of this text in the church becomes a kind of ecclesial argument, trusting in some capacity on the Spirit-guided decisions of the church and, behind the scenes, the providence of God. And in a real way the text-critical decision to show hesitancy regarding this passage is not muting providence, but cooperating with it.

Third, it might be worth reflecting on the connection between the question of the passage’s origin and the nature of its inspiration. While biblical scholars tend to root the authority of the Bible on its material nature and therefore its human origin, theologians are more likely to root the authority of the Bible on its functional nature and therefore its divine origin. And therein lies the question of inspiration in so far as the biblical text can itself become a revelatory agent by virtue of an act of divine inspiration in the past.

And that is a topic for another post.

A certain someone, somewhere said, “people add their favorite stories to your Bible. The ‘women caught in adultery’ is one of those stories – just added in because someone liked it.'” Lots of things were added, some taken away – and I suspect people liked each one – but in the end of the day, the above is just someone’s assertion without a context using it as a pretext to say what they were always going to say in the first place. As for me, the core question is “diving inspiration” and I trust the 1900+ years of the People of God who find this account inspired and handing on some part of the things which God wants us to hear that we might come to believe.

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